Sunday, March 30, 2008

Remember When the Words Were New?

By Kevin Guilfoile

There are far too many words written about sports, and I'm partially to blame.

I come from a baseball family. My dad was a Major League Baseball executive for forty years. I spent five years in the sports information department at the University of Notre Dame and parts of three seasons with the media relations departments of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Houston Astros, dedicating each working day to convincing journalists that they should write even more words about sports than they do. And I loved my job. I loved going to the ballpark every day. I loved sitting in the press box. I loved being part of a team, and not in the artificial, corporate Tiger Team sense. I loved that at the end of every day (or lots of days anyway) we won or we lost. I loved the highs and the lows.

But as much as I love sports, I don't listen much to sports radio or watch the highlight shows and I generally don't write much about sports myself because the beauty of athletic competition is that it doesn't need any context. Every game is a perfect little live drama that sets the stage for the next game all by itself. Last night tiny Davidson College with all of 1,700 students, was down by two and had the ball with 15 seconds left, time for one shot to send the number-one seeded Kansas Jayhawks home from the NCAA tournament. One shot that could put the Davidson Wildcats--Davidson!--into the Final Four with Memphis, North Carolina, and UCLA.

William Faulkner couldn't improve upon that drama with words, but this morning there will be literally millions of them spent describing the Jayhawks' escape, in newspapers and SportsCenters and on talk radio. Maybe more words than were written and spoken about V-E Day on May 8, 1945.

Today is the opening day of baseball season. More words are probably written about baseball than all other American sports combined. And possibly the most discussed baseball event took place sixty-one years ago, when Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier.

Of all the events in sports history, though, that might be one about which not enough has been said.

The day Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers it was for millions of Americans, millions of white, ethnic Americans, millions of Italian and Irish and German Americans--my Bay Ridge grandparents among them--the first time that they needed a black man. The first time they shared a common purpose with a black man. The first time they cheered a black man.

When Dodgers President and GM Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson, he was asking him to shoulder more burden than any man should have to accept. Rickey asked him to absorb both the high expectations and skepticism of Dodgers fans as well as the outright hostility of everyone else. But Jackie Robinson is not a hero because of what he was asked to do. Jackie Robinson is a hero because of what he did next. He delivered. Under the most difficult circumstances, Jackie Robinson helped lead the Dodgers to a World Series, and handled the insults and epithets and even death threats with public grace.

Last year Chicago writer Jonathan Eig wrote one of the finest accounts of that season in his bestselling book Opening Day, which is out in paperback tomorrow.

Even if you're not a baseball fan, it's a milestone worth contemplating during a year in which we might be electing an African-American President of the United States. It seems like such a trivial thing, but if Jackie Robinson hadn't been a great baseball player, if he had turned out to be an average baseball player or even a merely good one, the trajectory of the civil rights movement between then and now might have been radically changed.

Now that's something worth talking about.

20 comments:

Dana King said...

As a native (now transplanted) Burgher myself, I have to ask: your father isn't Bill Guilfoile, is he? I remmeber him as, I think, the team's PR director during the glory years of the 70s.

If you are Bill Guilfoile's son, and he was PR (or media relations, as I'm sure they call it today) does that mean you knew - dare I say it? - Bob Prince?

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Hi Dana.

Yep, Bill Guilfoile is my father and I did know Bob Prince (and Nellie King, too), at least as well as a seven-year-old could.

qbird said...

Does anybody else look forward to searching for the lyrics that Guilfoile quotes in his post titles in the event that you don't recognize them straightaway? I just love that game.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Ha! I wasn't sure anybody noticed.

jonathan eig said...

Hey, Kevin, thanks for the nice mention of my book. I'm honored! Say hello to your dad for me.
Jon

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